Manipur's prodigy boxer, 16-year-old pugilist Anju Devi from Imphal West, has recently won a gold medal at the fifth edition of the Black Forest Cup in Villingen, Schwenningen, Germany. Thus, adding another laurel to the state's glory. Anju (50 kg) was among the five Indian junior women boxers who clinched gold at the international boxing ring. The pugilist says she is following the footstep of legend from the same state and World Champion MC Mary Kom. Now, she eyes big to continue growing stronger for the ultimate goal- the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.
Anju talks to SheThePeople.TV about her achieving success at such a young age, and what makes her a powerhouse of passion and hard work. Excerpts from the interview:
What inspired you to become a boxer? Tell us about your childhood days.
During my childhood, I was extremely active and always wanted to play. I spent most of my time running or climbing trees in my town. My family was relatively poor so we didn’t have much to entertain ourselves with.
Once when I was very young, there was a boxing competition in my city and I saw boxers like Mary Kom and Sarita didi (Sarita Devi) participate in it. Ever since then, I was keen to take up boxing.
However, because of my family’s financial condition, they couldn’t support my decision to take up boxing. It was only when an uncle took me under his wing and agreed to support me without my parents’ knowledge that I started training. When he took me to my first coach, the coach asked to speak to my family, but later allowed me to join training when my uncle told him that they weren’t on board. It was only after one or two years of boxing that my parents were convinced about my decision and agreed to start supporting me.
What were the challenges you had to overcome, to make it big?
I think the first challenge for me was convincing my parents about my choice of sport. It was a fairly big moment for me because I really wanted them to support me and feel proud of their daughter. Apart from that, I just like to challenge myself to be a better version of myself every day.
I am motivated by myself. I like to challenge myself to be better each day and that’s what drives me forward. Boxing is the most important part of my life at the moment, you can even say it is almost my life.
Winning a gold medal at the Black Forest Cup, Germany, how does it feel?
About two years ago, I had a dream to play well at the nationals and become a good boxer. That was always my goal, and with the support of my family and coaches, I have now achieved that dream. So more than anything, it feels great to be able to achieve the first part of my dream and now start dreaming of bigger and better achievements.
Since you come from a traditional background, do you face any criticism and discouragement from society? If yes, how do you manage to overcome that?
Like I mentioned, initially, my family wasn’t supportive of my decision to take up boxing. Even apart from my family, our neighbours and community were also pretty much against it.
They told me, “don’t take up boxing” and told me to focus on studies and not go for practice. Even then, I just told them to not tell me what to do. In my mind, I had decided that it’s my choice and I’ll show them one day!
Over the years, how has the landscape of sports changed for young girls?
I think it has changed immensely. I have benefited from proper training and infrastructure in the places I have trained and that’s led to a lot of improvement in terms of strength, speed and knowledge.
How has your life change after being recognised internationally at this young age?
It’s the same really… or there may be a little bit of change. I just consider it as a medal that I have won and am happy, but I still want to continue to work hard towards my goals and ambitions of becoming a better boxer.
In the ring, what did you learn from the sporting legends?
I enjoy watching senior boxers fight as it helps me pick up the things they do. I was around when our institute (Inspire Institute of Sport) hosted the Senior National Women’s tournament earlier this year. Seeing all the top women boxers up close was a great learning experience.
How is the boxing scene in India for women, especially in Manipur? Why isn’t it popular among women in the country?
I can’t really say much about other states, because I haven’t seen too many states. But I think there’s more talent and opportunity in Manipur as compared to other states because we also have role models like Mary Kom and Sarita didi.
Tell us about your goals and upcoming tournaments?
At the moment, I will be looking to do well at the Junior National Championships and will then participate in the Junior Nations' Cup in Serbia. The main competition this year I am focusing on is the Junior Asian Championships since it will be the biggest international tournament of my career so far. My goal is to do my best at these competitions and continue growing stronger and more technically competent as I build towards my ultimate goal- the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.
Their (family) support was very important for me and I’m very happy to have them in my corner now.
How is your family taking to all the spotlight given to you now? Are they supportive of your career choices?
Oh now they’re really happy. I got to go home recently and they’re extremely happy with me. Their support was very important for me and I’m very happy to have them in my corner now.
What do you think before going in the ring?
Before stepping into the ring, I like to study my opponents. I like to play out situations in my mind, I see what positions they like to fight in and try to pre-empt different combinations I can use when fighting against her.
What are the biggest challenges that you face today?
Like I said, I like to think of myself as my biggest challenge and I keep pushing myself to become a better boxer and person.
How do you balance life?
I am lucky that at our institute in Bellary, I am able to balance both the aspects comfortably: academics and boxing. While my focus is on boxing at the moment, I also attend classes here and I feel it's important to have that balance because a good boxer is a good thinker.
What has been your most touching or amazing moment?
I think the moment my parents supported my decision to be a boxer was the best moment of my life. It gave me lots of confidence in being able to pursue my dreams and helped me along the way as I grew in the sport and even had to leave home to train at IIS.
Do you face gender discrimination in the field?
I don’t think I can speak about this because I’m still fairly young and haven’t seen many of the facilities in the country. At IIS, we get the best of facilities and coaching through American coach Ron Simms, who I have been training with for the past two years. We train together with the boys and there’s no discrimination here. We’re all boxers and friends and every one is trying to become a champion, which makes it a great atmosphere to be in!
Your message to young girls like you who dare to be different and want to go against the societal barriers?
I just want to tell them to have faith and belief in their talents, do hard work and don’t mind all the things that people say. Drown out the voices who tell you to not do what you want and keep going towards your goal.
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